Elliot Lake's natural beauty is but one of the draws that has helped to transform the former mining town into a retirement haven. The retirement concept is taking yet another bold step: Elliot Lake Retirement Living, the local agency charged with attracting newcomers, is set to begin offering new-build housing units as well as rentals. This follows the successful marketing and sale of more than 200 waterfront building lots.
(Photo courtesy Elliot Lake Retirement Living)

How the former mining capital of Canada transformed
itself into the nation's premier retirement capital

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Active, budget-minded retirees on the lookout for their dream home on the water have had to look ever farther afield in recent years as the price for prime waterfront locations continues upward. Some have opted for someplace completely different — a former mining town in Northern Ontario.  

Elliot Lake has remade itself as a place that caters to retirees, and has made things easier for those thinking of making the move. Want to try the place out before you take the plunge? No problem: Elliot Lake Retirement Living — the agency charged with attracting newcomers — offers an obligation-free Discovery Tour package that includes a two-night paid stay at a local hotel.  

The package is available year-round and includes a guided tour of the city and the retirement living corporation’s rental properties, as well as a little free time for visitors to strike out and experience the community’s charms on their own.  

Elliot Lake has been remarkably successful in turning the adversity of closed mines and unemployment into an opportunity to reposition itself as “Canada’s retirement capital.” It’s that adversity — back in the early 1990s when 95 per cent of the mining jobs were lost in the span of just two years — that helped to focus the minds of the community leaders. Drastic action was needed to avoid an economic cataclysm, and drastic action is just what was taken.  

The name Elliot Lake has been attached to the beautiful Northern Ontario lake since early in the 20th century. But it was only in 1955, after uranium was discovered nearby, that the community was created and adopted the same name. Its population peaked at 20,000, then fell to about 15,000 by the time the mine closures began. When that happened, the mine workers and their families moved out, leaving behind thousands of vacant homes and modern community facilities. Like so many mining towns across the Canadian Shield, Elliot Lake appeared headed for ghost-town status. 

Down, but not out ...

But it didn’t play out that way here. Instead, a handful of ambitious individuals came together to create Elliot Lake Retirement Living, an independent corporation that began to market the community as a great place to find inexpensive housing and great facilities for active 50-plusers. The campaign was aimed primarily at the Greater Toronto Area and Southern Ontario.  

The corporation owns nearly 1,500 of the 6,000 rental units in town. It rents apartments from a starting rate of $475 a month, $587 for townhomes and $615 for entire houses. If you’re in the market to buy, many homes in the urban area still sell for under $100,000, and you can sometimes find properties with cottages or unfinished buildings right on the area’s lakes for less than $250,000.  

Those are prices that are unheard of in Ontario’s more established waterfront communities, places such as Muskoka and Georgian Bay, where people are paying $500,000 or more for a vacant lot or a tear-down cottage.  

Yes, prices have increased in recent years, says Elliot Lake Retirement Living marketing sales manager Marielle Brown. But, she says, the community is still a bargain compared to most Ontario communities. “Everything we’ve done has been predicated on affordability,” Brown tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “Elliot Lake is still a great deal, and it’s going to remain a great deal.” She points to the fact you can buy a townhome close to the city core for $75,000, and a bungalow for $100,000 to $125,000.  

The area is great for seniors who want to stay active, with more than 4,000 lakes within a couple hundred kilometres, plus many kilometres of ATV, snowmobile, hiking and biking trails. Retirement Living sells Elliot Lake as an affordable community that offers a pristine natural environment and plenty to do. At its core is a good-sized population centre of about 12,000, with shopping, continuing education and cultural facilities and events to go along with all the recreational opportunities.  

Brown estimates that 47 per cent of the population is retired. But that certainly doesn’t mean half the population is over the age of 65, she quickly adds. Many people are retiring in their 40s and 50s these days, including teachers and military personnel.  

“Elliot Lake attracts a pioneering kind of person,” she says. “People who like the outdoors.”  

Four-season retirement living on offer

And don’t think the place shuts its doors come winter. Brown says some residents own RVs which they travel in during the summer and then spend the winter in town, enjoying all the activities that include recreation, culture and service club activities. There is an arts council that consists of 30 groups, plus a civic centre. Life-long learning programs offer continuing education opportunities with no educational requirements.  

As for getting around town, the city core is fairly compact, plus there’s a transit system, and 95 per cent of residents live within five minutes of a bus stop.  

Brown says anywhere from 2,200 to 2,800 people take Elliot Lake’s Discovery Tour annually. And there’s no obligation, she adds. While in the early going some people were apprehensive because they feared they’d be subjected to a high-pressure sales pitch, she says the tour is definitely low-key.  

Besides, she adds, it’s good for the tourism business to have all those visitors shopping, attending events and eating at the local restaurants.  

Brown says 50 to 60 per cent of those who have moved to the city are from Toronto and Southern Ontario. The rest are from Northern Ontario, Eastern Ontario and out-of-province.  

One of the many events planned for this summer is Elliot Lake’s Wilderness Outdoor Concert, set for July 2. The featured band, Glass Tiger, will be joined by Colin James and Terri Clark, as well as several local bands, including Young Running and Life Blown Open. The concert begins at 8 p.m. and will wrap up at around 1 a.m.  

While Retirement Living began its existence as a big landlord, the campaign to revitalize Elliot Lake and sell the concept of a retirement community has more recently taken on an expanded role. An offshoot, the Elliot Lake Residential Development Commission, was created to market the sale of building lots on the lake itself, an idea that has really taken off, says Brown.  

'We underestimated' the program's success

The property, originally Crown land, was sold to the municipality, which in turn handed it over to the commission. Situated on three lakes, 238 lots were made available and all but nine lots have been sold. And while the original intent was to sell them for people to build cottages on, Brown says the concept of a retirement community was so successful, half of them have been developed as full-time residences.  

“We really underestimated the success of the retirement program,” she says.  

The lots range from 1¼ acres to eight acres, with from 290 feet to 715 feet of waterfront. Lots went from $69,900 to $89,000 and one property, with a home built on it, was just resold for $600,000.  

Now, with that success under their belt, the retirement concept is taking yet another bold step, with plans under way to begin offering new-build housing units as well as rentals. The plan, currently called the Spine Road Project (“we’ll come up with a better name once it gets going,” says Brown), will begin with a six-storey, 80- to 85-unit condominium project and, if it’s successful, could lead to more condos as well as townhomes and single-family detached homes, says Brown. She expects the marketing of the condos could begin as early as next spring.  

In the meantime, studies are underway to determine the optimum styles, unit sizes and facilities that will appeal to the market, she says.  

Richard Kennealy, general manager Elliot Lake Retirement Living, was instrumental in branding the Northern Ontario city as Canada’s retirement capital, based on similar concepts in the United States. It was, however, the first of its kind in Canada.  

Retirement Living has also helped the community make capital investments and, because health care is so important to retirees looking for a new place to live, assisted in doctor recruitment to maintain its attractiveness to retirees.  

Dawn Morissette, the corporation’s project manager, said recently it has been tricky to get doctors to come to a small city in a rural part of Ontario, but Retirement Living deemed physician recruitment a top community priority. Together with the city, they’ve collectively invested $1 million in recruitment over the last two years. The city also has a full-service, 58-bed hospital.  

Looking at the success of Elliot Lake today, it’s not hard to imagine how things might have turned out without the bold farsightedness of those who planned its transformation. Private enterprise would not have been eager to sink investment into a dying community, and Brown says with the need to make a good profit, private entrepreneurs would require rents that would have made the community far less attractive.  

Instead, public enterprise took the lead and the results are impressive. Instead of a ghost town, Elliot Lake exists today as a thriving small city of 12,000.  

For more information about Elliot Lake’s Discovery Tour, go online or phone 1-800-461-4663.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — May 2011